Cartooning is an old art with politics and social ills getting most of the ink. But when it comes to lampooning love and marriage, especially a love-less marriage, William Hogarth in 18th century England may have been the lampooner-in-chief. Mocking societal foibles was his specialty, and he perfected it with meticulously detailed engravings, as in his series “Marriage a la Mode.” In one of the scenes, Hogarth described a doomed marriage, the unhappy couple worn down, he from too many visits to a brothel and she from too many card parties. An exasperated servant standing by pushes Hogarth’s point.
If Hogarth was the father of cartoons attacking the absurdities of life, Jules Feiffer must be the favorite son. Some 10 months ago, a new book came out about Feiffer – “Out of Line: The Art of Jules Feiffer” – and this column has been meaning to get to it. Looking through the book is like attending a museum retrospective. You get to see an artist’s body of work in one place – beginning with work from his childhood. If you’re a Feiffer fan, this book is a keeper. If you’re not, this book will make you one.
Like Hogarth, Feiffer is widely popular. But unlike him, Feiffer’s playful leaping come across less like punches and more like light taps on the shoulder – reminders, not railings. Certainly Feiffer’s drawings are less labored-looking, though no less exacting when it comes to pinpointing people’s worst moments. Insecurities get the biggest play in his work, and it’s clear that he’s referring to his insecurities as well as yours and mine. You can get a sense of that in his graphic novel “Kill Mother,” published two years ago, in which he penned the following. (Note that while he shows himself to be self-aware, his self-image needs work).
“My whole career as a cartoonist was in a sense an accident, with me making up for the fact that I didn’t know how to draw and wasn’t good enough at drawing to do the kind of work that attracted me in the first place. This graphic novel is my first and only attempt to be a professional cartoonist. Only in my eighties did I finally learn to work in the form that I first wanted to work in at the age of seven. So finally, in my dotage, my original dreams are coming true. And it’s turned out to be as much fun or more fun than anything I’ve ever done.”
I haven’t written about Feiffer in nearly 20 years. It’s been that long since I talked to him. Although he’s hugely successful – a Pulitzer Prize for cartooning, an Obie for playwriting and an Academy Award for an animated film – he talked like he had a long way to go.
Still, he had the confidence to walk off a job he held for 40 years at The Village Voice (an alternative newspaper that he made mainstream with his cartoons) when an editor sought to cut his salary in half to save the paper some money.
Quitting that paper turned out to be a great move. If he stayed on, those who didn’t read the paper, wouldn’t have heard of him, and he wouldn’t have put together so many books like his latest, titled “Out of Line.”
Books are important to him. I remember an uncharacteristically long sentence from him about how very un-passive book reading can be and how the reader interacts with books – something you don’t get from watching TV or a movie. With a book, he said, you really figure out what’s going on, and you really think.
Feiffer also said he found books, both as a child and as a grownup, to be friends in ways that family and other friends aren’t. “Books are confidants, and you trade secrets with a book. The books you read when young are far more influential than perhaps the better-written books you read later in life.”
Keep ‘em coming, Jules.